Rick Perry is not always his best defender. For the last two weeks, Mitt Romney has hammered Perry over a Texas law the governor signed which allows children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition. At the Orlando debate, for instance, Romney said sardonically, “To go to the University of Texas, if you’re an illegal alien, you get an in-state tuition discount. You know how much that is? That’s $22,000 a year. Four years of college, almost $100,000 discount if you are an illegal alien, go to the University of Texas. If you are a United States citizen from any one of the other 49 states, you have to pay $100,000 more. That doesn’t make sense to me.”

In his defense Perry dolefully concluded, “if you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart.”

Well then. Perry would have done better to describe the program, explain its legislative history, how it works, and its effects. Because the Texas law is more complicated than Romney suggests and more interesting than you might think.

To understand Perry’s law, you have to go back to the 1982 case Plyler v. Doe. In it the Supreme Court struck down a 1975 Texas statute which prohibited local school districts from spending money on the children of illegal residents. The effect of the verdict was to create a national mandate entitling all children in America, regardless of their immigration status, to a K-12 public education.

As Plyler was being contested, the inflow of illegal immigrants to the United States was ramping up, eventually leading to the 1986 amnesty signed by President Reagan that legalized 2.7 million of them. After the amnesty, illegal immigration from Mexico and South America surged to even higher levels. By 2004, more than 10 million people​—​nearly a third of America’s entire foreign-born populace​—​were in the country illegally. Of this shadow population, 57 percent hailed from Mexico and 24 percent from elsewhere in Latin America.

This group included well over a million children and, because of Plyler, they were now going to primary and secondary schools. Which meant that by the mid-’90s there was, for the first time in American history, a large pool of illegal residents who had been educated from the start in American schools and were, at least theoretically, eligible to attend college.

The push to help illegals go to college began at the grassroots level. In 1998 the Dallas County Community College District unilaterally decided to charge illegal residents who had graduated from local high schools the in-state tuition rate. Community college districts in Houston and other locales quickly followed suit. Three years later, the state legislature took up a bill (H.B. 1403) which extended the same benefit to all undocumented Texas children, provided they pass four requirements: (1) They must have resided with a parent or guardian while attending high school in Texas; (2) they must have graduated from a Texas high school or have a GED; (3) they must have gone to high school in Texas for at least the three previous years; and (4) they must file an affidavit testifying that they would apply for permanent residency as soon as possible. The Texas House passed the bill 142-1; the Senate passed it 30-0. Perry signed it into law in June 2001.

As the roll call demonstrates, the law wasn’t particularly controversial. Texas Democrats loved it, because it hit a liberal trifecta: identity politics, government subsidies, and the institutionalization of higher education. Texas Republicans had slightly more nuanced reasons for supporting it, none of which would be immediately apparent to Republican observers from, say, Massachusetts.

For starters, Texas Republicans understood that tuition isn’t all that important to the state university system. Texas schools are funded largely by the state sales tax, which everyone​—​both legal and illegal residents​—​pays. (Texas has no state income tax; most revenues come from consumption taxes.) Republicans argued that, as a matter of fairness, illegal immigrants had been funding the colleges just like everybody else. (This relative unimportance of tuition as a funding source is why both in-state and out-of-state tuition rates at Texas schools are far below the national average.)

Another reason was Texas’s Permanent University Fund, which National Review’s Kevin Williamson charmingly explains: “Early in the 20th century, the state of Texas gave the universities a whole bunch of land, which turned out to have a whole bunch of oil on it, and West Texas is full of wells bobbing up and down and pumping grade-A education out of the ground.” In other words, tuition at most Texas schools is used more to control enrollment than to raise funds.

Texas also has a history of going its own way with regard to immigration and Mexico. For instance, in 1942 the United States began the “Bracero Program,” which allowed Mexican contract workers to come, on a temporary basis, to the United States to help with the wartime labor shortage. Texas opted out of the program​—​not because they objected to Mexican guest workers, but because they wanted their border with Mexico to be completely open, in order to facilitate migration. So even though Texas is home to 14 percent of the illegal aliens in America, both Democrats and Republicans there have a different historical perspective on border issues from people in other states.

All of which made the bill an easy sell. Shortly after Perry signed his in-state tuition law, California passed a similar measure. And since then, 11 other states have done the same. Some of these states are liberal bulwarks with large illegal populations (New York, which has 7 percent of the country’s illegal population) and some are deeply conservative states with a very small proportion of illegals (Nebraska, which has 0.5 percent).

To hear Mitt Romney tell it, you’d think the University of Texas at Austin was overrun with the children of illegals, taking slots and taxpayer money from smart kids in New Jersey who’ve dreamt about being Longhorns their whole lives​—​and would have gone to UT if only they could have afforded the out-of-state rate. But the reality is very different. It turns out that of the 1.8 million students enrolled in Texas higher-ed, only 16,476 students are illegals (the state refers to these kids as “affidavit students”). Of those, 12,028 go to two-year community colleges. For the most part these schools have noncompetitive admissions and hardly any out-of-state students. A vanishingly small number go to the state’s competitive flagship schools: The University of Texas has 612 of them; A&M has 362. Romney’s fretting about a “$100,000 discount” being given to illegal immigrants is something like an argument for abortion rights centered around rape and incest.

Mind you, if the people of Texas decided to use their tax dollars to subsidize kids who grew up illegally in Texas rather than kids who grew up legally in New Jersey, that’s their right. After all, it’s their money and the entire raison d’être for in-state tuition is to discriminate in favor of one group and against others.

The real question​—​the one we would be asking if we weren’t in the middle of a primary fight​—​is whether this decision by the people of Texas has had good outcomes, for either the intended beneficiaries or the state. And on that score, the evidence is mixed.

The underlying economic assumptions behind the in-state tuition scheme for illegals are the following: (1) College coursework adds value in the labor market; (2) illegals can be lured into college coursework by financial discounts; and (3) since the marginal benefit to the school of in-state versus out-of-state tuition is relatively small, the state will reap benefits by having better-educated illegal immigrants​—​because these people will earn more and inevitably pay more in the consumption taxes that drive the Texas tax base.

A few studies have been done on the subject; their conclusions vary. The first was undertaken by Columbia’s Neeraj Kaushal in 2008. Looking at enrollments of illegal immigrants at state schools before and after the tuition law passed, Kaushal calculated that the subsidy had a noticeable effect​—​that for every $6,900 in difference between the in-state and out-of-state rates, undocumented Mexican enrollment increased by 2.8 percent. Further, she found that the lure of in-state tuition actually helped keep undocumented teenagers from dropping out of high school.

However, Kaushal’s tidy equations don’t inspire an overwhelming degree of confidence. For one thing, while the outputs of her models are deceptively precise, the inputs are not. Always remember that data on the universe of illegal aliens is like smoke. We have good educated guesses about how many illegals are here, what ages they are, and how long they’ve been here. But this isn’t the Census: These are guesses, and the numbers are always shifting. The greater concern about Kaushal’s study was that it didn’t take into account larger trends. In other words, could the rising number of illegals at college be the result of a bigger pool of college-eligible illegals, rising income amongst them, etc.?

In 2010, two researchers at the University of Houston, Aimee Chin and Chinhui Juhn, tried to dig deeper. They didn’t compare straight before-and-after outcomes. Instead, they used a difference-in-differences-type regression, looking at the change in illegal students over time in states which passed in-state tuition laws, compared with the changes over time in states that passed similar laws later (or not at all).

Their results suggested that the in-state tuition laws have very little overall effect​—​approaching zero, actually​—​on the number of illegal immigrants who enroll in college. The only subgroup which showed any increase in attendance as a result was older Mexican men (aged 22 to 24). And even in that case, the enrollment effect was quite small. Similarly, Chin and Juhn found no dampening effect of the program on the high-school dropout rate of illegals.

Chin and Juhn were only providing a first look at the data, not the final word. They suggest that, just 10 years in, it may be a while before we are able to discern what effects there are (or aren’t). Others have not been so cautious. Earlier this year the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University released a big report on the subject. You’ll never believe it, but they found absolutely conclusive evidence that the in-state subsidy has an enormous impact. Giving illegals in-state tuition increases their college enrollment by 31 percent! It pushes the high-school dropout rate down by 14 percent! The long-run increase in tax revenue dwarfs the state tuition subsidy!

Unfortunately, the Roger Williams study is magical thinking, the mirror image of Romney’s critique. Where Romney can find nothing but abomination in subsidizing state-school tuition for illegals, the Latino Policy Institute finds nothing but rainbows and free lunches. The truth is that the policy is an experiment​—​and one that may produce results that are good, or bad, or indifferent.

The only definitive conclusions the Texas experiment offers are about Mitt Romney.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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